University Prospects: Putting yourself in the clear: In the dark about clearing? Karen Gold met a student, parent, teacher and tutor who know the ropes

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The Independent Online
A-level results come out in a week's time. Thousands of youngsters will find their future in limbo. The huge and chaotic 'clearing' system which fits students to vacant university places will swing into action. This is what it will be like.

The student

Richard Barnes, 19, now taking HND in business and finance at Coventry University. Offered a place on a Manchester business degree while at Ward Freman School in Hertfordshire. Needed A-level grades C C D; actual result D D. Went to Coventry instead.

'I was away when the results came through. In a way it was better being away, because I didn't have to face my parents and I could be with my friends and think about what I wanted to do. I think my mum and dad wanted to sort it out quickly, and obviously I did as well but they did more.

'I got home three days after the results and I rang round everywhere. Everywhere was engaged: you just had to put the phone down and keep trying. I must have spent hours on the phone for several days. I was asking about HNDs because I didn't think I'd get on to a degree course with my results. People were very friendly when I got through, they all said they would put me on waiting lists but there were lots of people above me.

'Only Coventry, for some reason, said I was top of their waiting list. So when my clearing form came through my dad took the morning off work and we went straight to Coventry and handed it in. I think that might have helped: you've shown your faceand made an effort.

'I still had to wait, though. It was a good two weeks before I heard and it was a huge relief. Being in clearing isn't like when you apply the first time round: you have to make a decision on the spot and go for it. That's a bit hairy - but I did get a place and I'm glad I went.'

The parent

Linda Barnes, Richard's mother.

'It was difficult Richard being away when the results came out: we were worried all the places would be allocated before he could do anything. I went through a book he had with all the university and college courses in and marked any courses I thought he might be interested in.

'While he was still away he rang up and I gave him lists of different courses over the phone. I think he did try one or two from a call box then, but he didn't really start until he came home.'

'Once he got home he did a lot of phoning, and then it was a question of waiting for this clearing form before anyone would

take him. We were desperately waiting for this form to arrive so as soon as it did, we shot off to Coventry with it.

'Even after that there was a lot of waiting and we had to encourage him to keep looking and ringing. I think he wouldn't have done quite as much if we hadn't been behind him, pushing a bit. I felt he'd enjoy college and we thought he wanted to go - we just weren't sure if he realised how to go about it.'

The teacher

Roger Wilson, head of sixth form, Ward Freman School, Herts.

'The A-level results start coming through to us on Wednesday afternoon. We're not allowed to release them to the students that day, but it gives us an idea of who is going to have problems.

'I come in at five o'clock on the Thursday morning, and the kids start arriving about eight. It's a very emotional atmosphere: whoops of delight and a few tears. The important thing is that we already know who will need help and we can start thinking positively about what they are going to do.

'We have three phone lines and two of us in the office all the time. In fact I do some phoning on the Wednesday afternoon, because the universities have got the results already. If I can speak to an admissions tutor I can find out

for certain if someone is being rejected, and I can try some sweet talking. I say something like, 'This is a really good student; you should look at their reference again.' After Thursday it's best if the students ring up themselves. It's certainly worse if the parents do it.

'The difficult thing if they have to go into clearing, as Richard did, is keeping the motivation up. Some universities don't make quick decisions, so the students don't know if they've got a place. We've rung up sometimes saying, 'Come on, this student's worth having, haven't you decided yet?' It's hard work but the nice thing is that we've never really finished up with anyone who can't get in anywhere.'

The tutor

Paul Cashian, course tutor on HND business and finance, Coventry University.

'When the A-level results come out it gets hectic: as soon as you put the phone down it rings again. People ring asking what grades we require. Some of them are almost pleading to get in.

'We set strict conditions for the HND: it's eight A-level points. (D D, D E E, C E or B) We stick to that initially to see how many students we can pick up, but we may relax it a bit later on if we are struggling to get our 60 students. Whether we take

someone is largely decided on A- level points. We do ask them what they tried for originally, and if they know what an HND is to make sure they understand that it is different from a degree.

'The waiting list comes into operation almost straight away. We tell people to phone back in a week or so. Some of them are very persistent. That doesn't make any difference to me.

'We gradually build up a list of names, but it's very fluid: people are coming in and dropping out well into September. What you can say is that by the time the course has got going you can't tell the people who applied at the start and the people who came through clearing.'

If your A-level results are due next week and you have any doubts about meeting your grades, this is what you should be doing now:

Make sure you are home and have a phone available as soon as results come out.

Look in the prospectus of your preferred university to find similar courses to yours which require slightly lower grades.

Look at propectuses of other universities and colleges to find courses that interest you.

Find out where you can get advice - either in school/college or at your careers office - if you need to change your plans.

(Photograph omitted)